Does Jean Charest have one more campaign in him?

The premier does not have the option of running as badly as he did last time

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The Gazette, Monday, September 3, 2007

Of the many questions concerning Jean Charest's political future there is one that only he can answer - does he have another campaign in him?

The others - about the Liberal Party, the premier's office, the minority legislature, his relations with the Harper government in Ottawa - are all issues that can be managed up to a point.

But only Charest can decide whether he still has the appetite for another campaign. If he does, he'd better show up for it. He doesn't have the luxury of a next campaign like the last one, which was really quite lousy in all respects, starting with his listless performance.

There's an obvious timeline for Charest to make a decision about his future. Next April, he will have been leader of the Liberal Party for 10 years, and premier for five. Next June, at the end of the legislative session, he will be turning 50 on June 24. Those are all good reasons for thinking about the future.

By the spring, he will have a March policy convention, and leadership review, behind him. The standard of survival in these votes in Quebec parties is 80 per cent, and Charest should easily surpass that. There is no sign of a caucus revolt, and Charest has worked hard in the regions and in key blocs like the Liberal youth. Besides, there is no obvious successor other than Philippe Couillard, who appears quite content to bide his time. Unless Charest loses control of the legislature, as he almost did in last June's budget uproar, the natives will not be restless in the Liberal Party.

As for the minority House, a first in everyone's lifetime, one assumes all sides will do a better job of managing the session when it resumes next month, than they did in the first sitting last spring.

And here's the thing. Unlike Parliament in Ottawa, the National Assembly in Quebec City doesn't have a culture of non-confidence motions on which the government can fall at any time. In normal circumstances, the only question of confidence occurs over the budget, and that's only one vote, in the spring.

For an election to follow next spring's budget, both Pauline Marois and Mario Dumont would have to want one, and both could use another year to build their teams and campaign finances. And Charest is probably right when he says the public is in no mood for another election - the voters were in a decidedly foul mood when it looked like there might another one last spring. If the experience of the Harper government has proven anything, it's that minority governments work, and it's up to the actors in Quebec City to make this one work.

Moreover, the legislature normally sits only five months of the year - from Thanksgiving to the Christmas break, and from mid-March to St. Jean Baptiste. For the other seven months, the premier gets to set the agenda.

That starts with the premier's office. Charest's entourage is overdue for a shake up and right after Labour Day is the normal time for one.

Then, there's the cabinet. Charest sent very good messages in downsizing to 18 ministers and achieving gender parity in his cabinet last spring. But in the process, he annoyed key Liberal anglophone and Jewish constituencies in dumping Geoff Kelley and Lawrence Bergman. He needs to bring Kelley back into cabinet at an early moment, and can maintain gender equality by promoting former Bank of Montreal executive Nicole Ménard from the South Shore. He also needs to find a role, perhaps in his own office, for Bergman, along the lines of what Robert Bourassa once found for Reed Scowen. Dumont is working both these Liberal clienteles hard. They are tired of being taken for granted by the Liberals, and it would be a fatal miscalculation for Charest to do so.

On federal-provincial relations, the key test of any premier as a defender of Quebec's interests, Charest has some serious fence-mending to do with Stephen Harper. They had built the best relationship of any prime minister and premier since the Mulroney-Bourassa years, and then Charest blew it by allocating the entire $700 million in new equalization money from Ottawa to a campaign tax- cut promise. While Harper managed the blowback from the rest of the country, he took a hit over it. He was also completely blindsided, and very annoyed by it. Besides, he now has a second horse in the Quebec race, the one named Mario, who is very close to senior Quebec ministers such as Maxime Bernier and Josée Verner.

But in two separate statements last month, Charest made declarations of support for the troops in Afghanistan at a difficult moment - when Van Doos from Quebec were taking fatal casualties. These were both leadership moments for Charest, and Harper was undoubtedly appreciative.

If that Charest shows up for the next election, perhaps he still has one more campaign in him.

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